Jennifer Welter is believed to be the first woman to ever play a position other than kicker or holder in a men’s professional football league after she appeared at running back in an Indoor Football League preseason game Saturday. Welter, who played for the Texas Revolution, rushed three times, losing a yard on each of her first two carries and gaining one on her third, when she was stopped just short of the goal line.
Welter, at 5-foot-2 and 130 pounds, is a regular in a women’s professional league and has practiced with the Revolution throughout the preseason. Her regular season roster status is unclear — the Revolution have to cut their roster to its regular season size by Friday. And while she enjoyed her experience with the men — she trash-talked opposing linemen after her first carry because she “didn’t want them to think I was intimidated,” she told the Dallas Morning News — her primary goal is aimed at drawing attention to women’s football and other athletic opportunities, the Associated Press reports:
Welter, who since 2004 had played linebacker for the Dallas Diamonds of the Women’s Football Alliance, isn’t advocating that women play against men. She mostly wants the world to know that women are passionate about football, too, and that women’s leagues deserve more visibility and to play on bigger stages.
Even if Welter doesn’t make the team, more attention for women in different levels of football — and their lack of legitimate opportunities — would be a positive outcome of this. While leagues like the Lingerie Football League generate attention every now and then, leagues in which women play football fully clothed receive little if any notoriety outside of the occasional local news report, and they often have little funding to support players. Meanwhile, teenage girls and younger have had to fight for their place on the football field in youth, scholastic, and high school football leagues across the country, even though more than 1,500 girls are playing football at the high school level each year.
The problems extend off the field, where women are often the focus of oddly cynical marketing campaigns and blatantly sexist news coverage when it comes to football. While women have made headway on the field as officials — the first majority-female crew in NCAA history took the field this year, and we’re approaching the day when the NFL will have a full-time female official — there remains a lack of women at the top levels of the NFL. The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports gave the NFL a C grade for gender hiring in 2013, as there are only 20 women at the vice president level or above in the league office. The only female team president in the NFL — the Oakland Raiders’ Amy Trask — resigned in 2013, and only nine of the league’s 32 teams had more than one woman serving in one of their many vice presidential roles. Not a single woman served as a head trainer in the NFL during the 2013 season.
There are, of course, legitimate health concerns for women who play football, just as there are for men. And those concerns should be addressed, just as they should be for men. But women who choose to play and participate in the sport deserve the opportunity to do so, and if Welter’s appearance in a men’s league helps people understand (because they apparently still need help) that women like football just like men, and also helps further the discussion about the barriers women face both on and off the field in football (and other sports too), it will have been a success.